What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.


What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

Talbott on organism

The always challenging Steve Talbott continues his series of sophisticated and searching critiques of the materialism that rules science these days. This rulership he regards as illegitimate, a kind of mental despotism issuing in numerous blunders and follies and, off at the end, throwing doubt on the nobility of the scientific enterprise as such.

Like Lawrence Brown’s majestic and endearingly quirky book Might of the West, Talbott’s examination of science reveals how dependent our idea of causality is upon the wider world as it impinges on us. The observable world only rarely can deliver to our perception a true pattern of causality; mostly the observable world delivers repeatable succession which is suggestive of causality. It is only by a particular method of intellectual abstraction, which Talbott ably describes as analogous to the reduction of a language into rules of grammar, that we can approximate it.

Now no one ever confused the rules of grammar for the language itself; yet this very sort of error pervades modern science.

What this fascination with abstract causalities, which undergirds so much of how engineering applies what science exposes, tends to obscure is the fact that metaphysics is still necessary for understanding. To even conjecture on the patterns of causality is to admit that a mind outside those immediate causalities exists by use of which their pattern becomes at least partially discernible.

Materialism is woefully inadequate for many purposes, but its blindness to the possibility that our ability perceive is limited may be its most debilitating effect on the mind. That we can only demonstrate succession and repeatability that is suggestive of causality may only mean that there is more to the universe than meets the “eye” of modern science.

The bluster of the materialist, presupposing that man sees all, is like a poison that begins by attacking faith but in the end also destroys reason. For of course the first step of reason — the assumption that the world is intelligible — is a step of faith.

Talbott in this essay ranges over these and related profound matters, and draws out some vital points of emphasis. He does all this by way of a careful examination of how biology tries to understand organisms: what it means to be an organism and what it means to observe organisms.

He emphatically rejects, having shown its absurdity, that reductionism which would make organism into a mere function of chemistry or physics. He points out the plain pulverizing fact that a physical law may well be in effect; it may well be obeyed by all, out of sheer brute necessity; but it does not on that account exhaust the reality. To mistake physical law for arc of causality is piss-poor science. That all animals are subject to gravitational force is a law that is very true, but it also very inadequate to tell us much about the similarities and differences between a yellow jacket and a polar bear.

A subject possessing a power of agency adequate to regulate or coordinate at the level of the whole organism [even, Talbott makes clear, a one-celled organism] looks for all the world like what has traditionally been called a being. But you will not find biologists speaking of beings. It’s simply not allowed, presumably because it smells too explicitly of vitalism, spiritualism, the soul, or some other appeal to an immaterial reality. We will see later what extraordinary confusion bedevils this attitude …

Indeed we will. Read the whole essay.

Comments (16)

Talbott seems, among other things, to be pointing towards the concept of information in biological entities--a very interesting topic in itself. Jay Richards has written about it recently in some of his discussions, for example here


Jay's whole series (there are five parts) is well worth reading.

I would be inclined even more than Jay is to make a big deal of the difference between merely apparent pattern and information (such as would be the case if there were no actual designer and if the entities were entirely the result of mindless processes) and real pattern and information, but I don't know that this indicates any real disagreement.

In fact, a “cause” is nothing anyone has ever managed to define with any adequacy. It’s a rather vague, approximate, and anthropomorphic idea, derived from our own experience in “making things happen.”

Bingo. That was what Robert Collingwood said years ago. I can't find the quote (my recollection is from "The Idea of Nature"), but here is an excerpt that contains this insight in someone's summary referring to Collingwood's "An Essay on Metaphysics."

"The concept of cause in the natural world is, therefore, an anthropological metaphor derived from human influence and intention, a metaphor made possible by Christianity’s presupposition that God exists and that he created the natural world as something distinct from himself, making it possible to believe that phenomena in the natural world are amenable to rational explanation (222 ff.).

Well, I'm afraid I can't go along with either Humean or Kantian skepticism about the extramental reality of causation. That was one drawback of the Talbott article.

I might go as far as agreeing that the concept of causality is primitive and, in just that sense, mysterious. But not that it is an anthropomorphic projection of our own minds or anything like that. And in any event, if we actually _do_ make things happen, then that itself is objective and we are not projecting it onto the external world at all. If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, it really does bend the blades of grass. :-)

Lydia, I'm puzzled. Did you take Collingwood's quote to be to be a denial of extramental causality, or an anthropomorphic projection of our own minds? I never have thought that, and I don't think he took himself to be saying that at all. I think the point was very simple. Namely, when man first looked for causes, why did he think there should be causes in nature? Why does man look for causes? Because he is a causer, and we understand things by analogy. It is merely about discovery, not that we provide the causes in our minds. Now this discovery aspect may seem trivial, but I think the context was a critique of modern understandings of causation since the scientific era, probably informed by a disapproval of the reduction of the Aristotelian multiple cause understanding (to which you probably recall I am very sympathetic) to what is seen as a more impoverished one where efficient causation is all that remains in the theoretical understanding. And it seems clear that efficient causality doesn't capture the fullness of how humans cause things.

And how do you see the Talbott article denying extramental causation? I read it quickly, and in two parts at different times. I could well have misread it, but because of its length I'd rather not reread it now. So I'm not asking you to take the time to quote it, or explain the article for me; it would be quite sufficient to just say from your memory the impressions that struck you as endorsing or accepting this viewpoint. I might or might not reread it after that, but my main interest on this beautiful Friday afternoon is what is the crux of the matter in your mind that led you to this conclusion, rather than what is in the article.

If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, it really does bend the blades of grass. :-)

I agree that it doesn't matter if there is a person is in the forest to hear it or not. To believe otherwise requires some training I never got, and hope never to. :)

Well, the references both in Paul's summary and in Talbott's argument to the idea that the natural world doesn't actually show us causality but rather shows us patterns of conjunction and succession that at most "are suggestive" of causality are themselves suggestive to me of a Humean skepticism about our justification for believing in real extramental causality. Hume, of course, thought that we had no good justification for believing it but just couldn't help ourselves.

The references both in Talbott (as you quote him) and in Collingwood (or the summary of Collingwood) to the notion of causality as fuzzy and anthropomorphic, and especially the word "metaphor" (which seems fairly strong) sound to me like a statement that the concept is merely a projection of our own minds rather than a discovery of something real outside our minds in nature. And I believe that Collingwood was a Kantian, which would mean that he _has_ to take causality not to be part of the real extramental world, so that all fits together.

Because there was a First Cause, did there have to be a First Effect? It seems to me that he dances around the fact that there are secondary causes and effects because there is a First Cause that is still involved with His creation.

The Chicken

For of course the first step of reason — the assumption that the world is intelligible — is a step of faith.

Actually, the first step of reason is the belief and assertion that "I can know truth ... and know that I know truth." And, it is indeed a step of faith -- reason can't even get off the ground without that and other steps of faith.

You can throw in Hobbes and possibly Mach on doubting the efficacy of cause. What cause btw? Single, plural, estimated, historical,innumerable, major, minor, what?
I have no problem with cause as a sometimes identifiable action or influence. But if postulated as an all encompassing condition a little reticence is in order. In a totally interactive, interrelated, and physical existence you are dealing with an extremely deep and thick soup. Any one of a whole series of conditions can have variable influences. The idea of cause at some point can or does border on trivial.
Mark, the Collingwood book is "Essay on Metaphysics".

For of course the first step of reason — the assumption that the world is intelligible — is a step of faith.

At the risk of sounding like a heretic, I'd say that there's an important sense in which we _find_ the world to be intelligible, where we might not have done so. So it isn't a step of faith but a genuine discovery. For example, our sensations might be simply chaotic, but it turns out that they are not. Objects might appear to wink in and out of existence, but they don't. We might have found no regularities that justify the hypothesis that there are stable physical laws. And so forth.

The American Thinker had a report yesterday on the new immigrarion bill that was passed in the Netherlands. It explicitly rejects multi-culturalism and toughens up various requirements of assimilation (immigrants must learn Dutch, the face covering burka outlawed as of Jan 1, 2013, etc.). The report can be read here: http://www.americanthinker.com/blog/2011/06/netherlands_abandoning_multiculturalism.html I really wonder if this is a blip or if this is a sign that Western Europe has had enough? Immigration has been and continues to be a demographic necessity, since so much of Western Europe is reproducing below replacement level. In any case, I see this as a hopeful sign that westerners are starting to see that preserving one's own culture and way of life is a worthwhile endeavor.

Lydia, I reread and now agree with you. I missed the clear expression about that "we can only demonstrate succession and repeatability that is suggestive of causality," I think partly because I was reading too fast, but mainly because I wasn't expecting to see anything out of the ordinary about causation. I hadn't dealt with anyone that had that view, and I've not made it to Kant in my phil studies so far. I didn't know that Collingwood was a Kantian either. I've only read "The Idea of Nature," though I could have missed items about causation just the same. I'm of the opinion (probably from Mortimer Adler) that if you don't have questions in your mind when you read, you aren't really reading. I think I just demonstrated that.

So at the end of the day one can find common cause over Talbot's anti-naturalism, but that shouldn't bias one to his view on causation, since the other non-naturalist options out there don't require this commitment. Now that I see it, I don't like it either. Perhaps Platonists or idealists might be more likely to go for it. Aristotelians and those of the modern tradition, never.

I don't think that Talbott is a Humean skeptic of causation. He talks about mathematics and physics showing us causation by means of radical abstraction. I would conjecture that his philosophical commitments are a variation on Aristotelianism.

But the main burden of his argument under this head is to expose how much biology and other life sciences draw on the language of causation without even attempting to philosophically establish it: without, indeed, even acknowledging that an attempt at philosophical demonstration is necessary.

Oh dear! I apologize for posting in the wrong thread. I don't know how I managed to do that.

One philosophical position that would seem to fit pretty well with everything Talbott says is Berkeleyan idealism, but Berkeleyan idealists (for whom I have plenty of respect, though I disagree with them) are very thin on the ground.

Just a note to Lydia: One of Talbott's strongest influences was Owen Barfield, who very strongly disagreed with Berkeley (though Barfield would, I think, agree that the tree - **as we experience it** - is neither brown nor makes a sound with a perceiver - or to state it a bit more cautiously, without "perceiving". Talbott might say, "Abstract qualities from the tree, and do you have anything left?" Whether the perceiving is human or non-human, without perceiving, there are no qualities. I think that is one of his core points. And I don't see, by the way, that conservatives have any more of a handle on a world of quality than liberals, but i guess that's another conversation. The solution, I think, is to listen past the labels and find, in those who call themselves "conservatives" or "liberals" the wisdom that sees beyond materialism. I don't see it in most market fundamentalists or religious fundamentalists who call themselves "conservative." Nor do I find it in so-called secular leftists who reduce everything to quantity. But I have found many on the Right and many on the Left who understand what Talbott is talking about. I think that these political labels belong to a past century (and probably at least before the mid 20th if not earlier) and the a rapidly growing number of people are seeing beyond physicalism/materialism. It needs to happen soon, on a much larger scale, if we are to survive, I think. (donsalmon7@gmail.com; write if you're interested in pursuing this further; or look up "Shaving Science With Ockham's Razor")

Post a comment

Bold Italic Underline Quote

Note: In order to limit duplicate comments, please submit a comment only once. A comment may take a few minutes to appear beneath the article.

Although this site does not actively hold comments for moderation, some comments are automatically held by the blog system. For best results, limit the number of links (including links in your signature line to your own website) to under 3 per comment as all comments with a large number of links will be automatically held. If your comment is held for any reason, please be patient and an author or administrator will approve it. Do not resubmit the same comment as subsequent submissions of the same comment will be held as well.